For just a second, it’s jarring to see Michelle Dockery of “Downton Abbey” as a single mother in “Restless,” wearing bell-bottomed jeans and smoking pot in 1976 England. You can hear Maggie Smith exclaiming, “Mary Josephine Crawley, put your hair up and remove those love beads at once. You are forgetting yourself.”
But Dockery, so proud and cynical and near-tragic in “Downton,” passes beautifully as the disbelieving daughter of a former spy in “Restless,” a miniseries premiering Friday night at 9 on Sundance Channel. She and castmates Charlotte Rampling, Hayley Atwell, Rufus Sewell, and Michael Gambon are easy to enjoy, as the two-parter toggles between the 1970s and World War II spy intrigue. “Restless” is not a particularly tight suspense story: The material, adapted by William Boyd from his 2006 novel, is too steeped in mood and the story suffers from a few underdeveloped and unearned plot turns, especially in next Friday’s part 2. But the acting, particularly by the three female stars, Dockery, Atwell, and Rampling, more than compensates.
The trio of actresses is the first thing you need to know about “Restless.” The second is that the miniseries, which is a coproduction with the BBC, is part of a push from the Sundance Channel to deliver more original scripted material. “Restless” will be followed by a number of intriguing Sundance projects, including Jane Campion’s miniseries “Top of the Lake” with Holly Hunter and Elisabeth Moss. And the third thing: Boyd, whose “Masterpiece” adaptation of “Any Human Heart” was one of last year’s best pleasures, is an excellent screenwriter. “Restless” may not be his strongest adaptation, but it’s nonetheless better than most TV miniseries that make it to air. Boyd is currently working on another spy project, by the way: A new James Bond novel, sanctioned by the Ian Fleming estate.
In “Restless,” Rampling plays Sally Gilmartin, who was born Eva Delectorskaya and once worked as a spy for the British Secret Service as World War II escalated. Just before the start of the story, in 1976, her photo appeared in the local paper, and now she is certain that someone from her past has found her and wants to murder her. She buys a gun, and spends too much time looking out of the window of her country home with a spyglass. Is Sally losing her marbles, succumbing to paranoid dementia? Rampling brings both steely stubbornness and fragility to her performance, so that either scenario is quite possible. Her daughter, Dockery’s Ruth, who didn’t know about her mother’s past, thinks so, and we wonder, too. “Suddenly I’m half Russian,” Ruth says after her mother tells her the truth. Then Ruth reads her mother’s detailed spy journals and she slowly becomes convinced.
As Ruth reads, the movie flashes back to Sally’s early years. Atwell, best known from “Captain America: The First Avenger,” plays the young Sally in Paris, as she gets drawn into espionage after her beloved brother is killed in the British Secret Service’s war against fascism. Lucas Romer (Rufus Sewell), Sally’s brother’s boss, enlists her help in secretly persuading America to join the war by constructing media stories invented to scare Americans. Some of the most fascinating scenes in “Restless” are about this effort to manipulate American attitudes, and the tricks Sally learns about spy work. Sally eventually falls in love with Lucas, and the more she wants him to love her back, the more she is willing to compromise her morals for the cause. As Sally allows herself to be used for the cause, Atwell powerfully portrays her self-disgust.
The “Restless” soundtrack is heavy-handed, as it occasionally strains to create shock and creepiness. And the brooding atmospherics — forced restlessness — bog the miniseries down in the second half. Director Edward Hall uses these unnecessary stylistic shortcuts, rather than building tension purely through character and conflict. Still, “Restless” entertains and sometimes genuinely chills, as it proves Sally’s dark theory, which she tells to her daughter: “No one knows even half the truth about anybody else, not even when we’re very close.”Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Matthew